Olli Mustonen’s Taivaanvalot receives its UK premiere at Wigmore Hall

However, as the works progressed they cohered as a collection of individual
expressions of a nation’s ‘spirit’ through musical language.

The programme was essentially constructed around Mustonen’s new work, Taivaanvalot, or ‘Heavenly Lights’, which the Finnish
pianist-composer-conductor describes as a ‘Symphony for Tenor, Cello and
Piano’ and which sets texts originating from the Finnish national epic, Kalevala. The last-minute switching of the first- and second-half
items placed Taivaanvalot in the pre-interval slot, preceded by
works by Sibelius and BartÛk.

Each of the short pieces for piano which form the latter’s For Children is based on a folk melody, either Hungarian or
Slovakian, which in most cases BartÛk presents intact, accompanied by
harmonies derived from the melodies which often eschew Western idioms, “in
order to acquaint the piano-studying children with the simple and
non-Romantic beauties of folk music”. The pieces, most of which last less
than a minute and which have become a cornerstone of piano pedagogy,
present few significant technical challenges but they do pose some musical

Mustonen adopted a Romantic, rhapsodic approach, curling his hands high in
the air before they fell heavily onto the keyboard, shaking his head with
vigour and intensity. A fortissimo dynamic prevailed during the
seven pieces he chose to perform, and at times the degree of ‘effort’
expended resulted in a rather hard, even stabbing, tone. While there was
rhythmic interest and vitality, there was little of the simplicity,
playfulness and effortless eloquence inherent in these miniatures.

Such intensity was more fitting in Sibelius’s Malinconia for cello
and piano, which was composed in a three-hour outpouring of grief, in March
1900, following the death of the composer’s infant daughter, Kirsti. The
cello’s chromatic weaving at the start seemed to be reaching for a way
through and beyond the despair, but it was violently silenced by the
piano’s wildly sweeping ascents and cascades. The extended virtuosic solos
for both instruments palpably throbbed with emotion. Projecting forcefully,
Isserlis sought every colour and texture through which Sibelius conveys his
private pain, employing a wide vibrato and diverse tones ranging from
gravelly to ethereal, finding both desolation and tenderness. Mustonen’s
waves of sound pressed forward, while the piano’s extreme bass range
thundered darkly, occasionally obscuring the cello line.

Sibelius made frequent use (in works such as the Kullervo Symphony
and the Lemmink‰inen Suite) of the Kalevala – the epic
comprising poems, stories and songs which Elias Lˆnnrot compiled in the 19 th century from Karelian and Finnish folklore and mythology, and
which was instrumental in the development of Finnish national identity. In Taivaanvalot, Mustonen has set the Finnish text as translated into
English by Keith Bosley – excepting the final section which
presents the potent magical words of the demigod V‰in‰mˆinen, the
Kalevala’s central character – in order that “with the help of music it
might be possible to convey some of those untranslatable, at times even
hypnotic and shamanistic qualities of this poetry to an audience not fluent
in our unusual language”.

Seeming initially to echo Malinconia, Taivaanvalot begins
with the cello alone, spinning a chromatic line that is intensified by the
piano’s entry. The vocal line begins in declamatory fashion and Ian
Bostridge, characteristically attentive to the text, sang with a directness
and coolness which put me in mind of Aschenbach’s opening recitatives at
the start of Britten’s Death in Venice. In vengeance for the theft
of the Sampo – the magical artefact constructed by the ‘Eternal Hammerer’,
the blacksmith and inventor Ilmarinen, that brings good fortune to its
holder – Louhi, the “gap-toothed hag of the north”, has plagued the
V‰in‰mˆinen’s people with disease, sent Otso the Bear to attack them, and,
infuriated by her failures, stolen the sun, moon and fire, leaving Kalevala
in darkness. With increasing lyricism and dramatic intensity, the narrator
unfolds the tale of V‰in‰mˆinen’s conflict with Louhi, and the efforts of
Ilmarinen to forge hoes and ice-picks to free the moon and the sun from the
rock and cliff where Louhi has hidden them, and a collar with which to
chain the Northland hag to “a mighty slope’s edge”.

Bostridge was a compelling storyteller, conveying V‰in‰mˆinen’s quiet
wisdom, Louhi’s fierce anger and Ilmarinen’s relentless determination. His
unaccompanied voice compelled with its directness and provided moments of
pause instilled with dramatic tension; at the close, the vocalise in which
V‰in‰mˆinen heralds the release of the moon and sun was spellbinding.
Elsewhere, Mustonen employs focused instrumental gestures to reflect and
enhance the speaker’s emotions. Louhi’s vehement intensity, as she
threatens the sun and moon that they will never be released unless “[I]
come and raise you myself with nine stallions borne by a single mare!”,
bristled in the cello’s fierce pizzicatos and staccato attack against a
pounding piano gallop, as Bostridge’s tenor became a wild yell. Ilmarinen’s
anger burned in the piano’s stabbing underscoring of Bostridge’s spiteful
articulation of his adversary’s name – “the gap-toothed hag of the North” – and erupted as Isserlis fairly threw his bow at his
cello’s strings when the blacksmith imagines Louhi enchained by his iron

The vocal line frequently falls quite low and Bostridge was not always able
to surmount the instrumental tumult at the bottom of his range. And, while
there are individual moments of striking specificity of feeling, I found
Mustonen’s stylistic palette a little repetitive over the work’s 30-minute
span, with frequent alternation of fluid lyrical passages of folk-like
melodic gestures (occasionally Vaughan Williams-meets-Sibelius) with busy,
more dissonant and abrasive sections comprising ostinato-like repetitions.
That said, the Finnish composer could not have had better advocates for his

In the second half of the recital, German lieder framed Hungarian
miniatures for cello and a setting of a seventeenth-century English text
which the literary scholar Harold Bloom described as ‘the most magnificent
Anonymous poem in the entire language’.

Relaxed of voice and manner, Bostridge comfortably adopted what are surely
familiar fictional personae in three songs by Robert Schumann in which,
while occasionally employing a dominating forte dynamic, Mustonen
was more attentive to the nuances of the vocal melody and text. ‘Die
feindlichen Br¸der’ (The warring brothers) was fast and intense, hurtling
through the image of the rival siblings’ rage-inflamed duel over the
mutually beloved Countess Laura. Bostridge’s tenor swelled assertively with
the righteous challenge to the sword, “enscheide du!” (let you decide), and
howled despairingly, “Wehe! Wehe!” (Alack, alack), against a dry piano
backdrop, when the brothers are both felled. Mustonen’s rhythmic bite added
a dash of quasi-Mahlerian irony to ‘Die beiden Grenadiere’ (The two
grenadiers), and Bostridge grippingly captured the despair of the defeated
soldiers at the fall of their beloved country and Emperor. The slightest
pause in the final avowal to rise from the grave to defend the Emperor was
an emotive ‘choke’, made more touching and melancholy by the piano’s
bleakly fading afterword.

Isserlis’s presentation of four of Gyˆrgy Kurt·g’s Signs, Games and Messages – his ongoing 60-year diary of musical
miniatures – was a masterclass in quiet, precise, concentrated
expressiveness, demonstrating enormous insight into musical colour and
pulse. The pairs of short pieces framed ‘Steven Isserlis 60’ which was
composed especially for him by M·rta and Gyˆrgy Kurt·g, and first performed
at the Wigmore Hall in December 2018. There followed what was, for me, the
highpoint of the recital: Richard Rodney Bennett’s 1961 dramatic scena for tenor and cello, ‘Tom O’Bedlam’s Song’, which Bennett
wrote for Peter Pears. Here, Bostridge and Isserlis equalled each other for
storytelling prowess, Bostridge’s poetic ravings clearly distinguishing the
Bedlam beggar’s lunatic and lucid ‘selves’ and slipping effortlessly
between the intersecting identities. They were re-joined by Mustonen for
the final work, Schubert’s ‘Der Strom’ (On the river), which offered some
salving sweetness after the dramatic intensities of the preceding works.

So, a somewhat unusual assemblage of musical ‘tasting notes’ which, if not
quite forming a vintage blend, certainly provided much delectation and

Claire Seymour

Ian Bostridge (tenor), Steven Isserlis (cello), Olli Mustonen (piano)

BartÛk – For Children (Old Hungarian Tune, Round Dance, Soldier’s
Song, Allegretto, Drinking Song, Allegro Robusto, Peasant’s Flute);
Sibelius – Malinconia Op.20; Olli Mustonen – Taivaanvalot
(a symphony for tenor, cello and piano) (UK premiËre); Schumann –
‘Belsazar’ Op.57, ‘Die feindlichen Br¸der’ Op.49 No.2, ‘Die beiden
Grenadiere’ Op.49 No.1; Gyˆrgy Kurt·g – Signs, Games and Messages
(‘Az hit …’, ‘Souvenir de Balatonbogl·r’); M·rta Kurt·g/Gyˆrgy Kurt·g –
‘Steven Isserlis 60’; Gyˆrgy Kurt·g – Signs, Games and Messages
(‘Schatten’, ‘Gyˆrgy KroÛ in memoriam’); Richard Rodney Bennett – ‘Tom
O’Bedlam’s Song’; Schubert – ‘Auf dem Strom’ D943.

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 30th September 2019.

product_title=Ian Bostridge (tenor), Steven Isserlis (cello), Olli Mustonen (piano): Wigmore Hall, London
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Ian Bostridge

Photo credit: Sim Canetty-Clarke